Origins of the Hawaiian Shirt

The Hawaiian Palaka shirt’s fascinating beginnings, a Hawaiian staple using a unique material named Tapa.

Think of Hawaii and the first thing that comes to mind is the Hawaiian shirt. This well known garment is the Palaka shirt and has a long history. Little has changed throughout time including the material used. One cliché that comes to mind is ‘styles always come back’, for this shirt style has never gone out. One wouldn’t think of trees being used to make clothing, but for centuries it has been and still is used.

Used for ceremonial and functional use, the Tapa cloth is also found used for the ever popular Palaka shirts as well as wall tapestries in many Hawaiian homes. The Palaka shirt that uses this unusual material has an interesting story in itself. Coming from other countries in Asia such as China and Japan, the hawaiian shirts near me field laborers found in their hands shirts with tails. To help protect them from the hot sun the workers improved the shirts for more practical use by taking off the tails and making them of light loose fitting material instead of the rich embroidered silks they were originally made in.

These now traditional Palaka shirts are sometimes seen with the darker print on the inside showing the faded patterns on the outside. It appears the shirt is worn the wrong way, but this is really the way they were created to show the muted pattern. Usually found in traditional basic colors such as black or brown, but are also made in a multitude of colors and fabrics. Tapa fabric is not a very sturdy fabric and tends to be used more for the higher ceremonial purpose and special occasion. It is seen sometimes worn by government officials, chiefs and in weddings.

This material can be found in about every home usually on shirts, decorative quilts or wall ornaments. Tapa’s that are given by a chief or royal family holds more value and most often time will be displayed in the home. Because the process is completely made of and with natural sources it is friendlier to the environment. Even the brushes used to apply the natural dyes and paints are made from sticks with frayed ends. Simplistic and beautiful from a culture that respects nature and tradition in an ever changing modern world it’s good to know that with tradition the old customs of Hawaii still find a place in today’s society.


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